excerpts from

Three Years
on the
Nowhere Road

Visiting around the Peninsula in Robert Lee's 2-gear sedan

The best days of all were when Robert Lee went visiting and took me along. Visiting meant driving north--- never south for some reason, and never to a town or city--- but always to somewhere remote and out of the way, invariably down a narrow winding dirt or gravel road to some tucked-up little place in a hemlock grove or on the bank of a creek or at the wooded edge of a pasture. Robert Lee didn't seem to know anyone who lived in town or, more probably, no one who lived in town would have wanted Robert Lee showing up unannounced on their front porch. He was not a sight for civilized eyes.

He stood six feet four inches, was well into his sixties, was inordinately strong, and all-in-all possessed the physique of a medium-sized bear. He seemed to have just one set of clothes which he washed rarely if ever, and in which he appeared to sleep, even to his boots. His hair was perpetually tousled as if he'd just crawled out of a hollow log, and he usually wore three or four days-worth of stubble. There was no running water on Robert Lee’s property, but he did have that big icy river close at hand which he could always make use of when absolutely necessary. I tried to stay upwind of him just as a general precaution.

As Robert Lee's sidekick, I visited out-of-the-way parts of the Peninsula that I would be never have seen otherwise and met a cast of distinctive backwoods characters who lived too far off the grid to have ever been encountered under normal circumstances. In Robert Lee’s company I felt I was seeing a part of the old America that had long since vanished everywhere else except maybe in forgotten pockets of Appalachia or the deep South, or far up the road in Alaska. We traveled in whatever old wreck from his junkyard was deemed most road-worthy at the time. None of them was actually licensed, but that didn't seem to concern Robert Lee in the least, and I certainly didn't give it a thought.

The car we used most often was a low-slung rusted sedan whose make I can no longer call to mind. It was a good old runner on the whole but for one crippling peculiarity. The transmission had seen better days and possessed neither a workable first gear, nor a reverse. Driving without first gear didn't present much of a problem, provided you started out on a downhill slope. You could even start out on the level in second gear, if you had the right touch, and for a veteran trucker like Robert Lee it presented no problem at all. Reverse was another matter, for you could very easily find yourself on a backwoods road that just petered out, where the option of reverse was an absolute necessity.

On one occasion we were bouncing along on a narrow gravel road that ended abruptly at the edge of a precipitous ravine. As soon as we saw the drop-off dead ahead, but still a few dozen yards off, I assumed Robert Lee would brake to a stop, get out and assess the situation and ponder our options but, without hesitation and much to my horror, he stomped the pedal, barreled straight ahead toward certain destruction and, at the last possible moment, slammed the brakes, wrenched the wheel as hard as could with a blood-curdling Yahoo! and basically spun that heavy old sedan around on a dime, splattering every tree in our immediate vicinity with gravel. He didn’t actually pull off a complete 180— it was hardly even a 120— but it was just enough that he could then coax the old wreck completely around and off we went, rattling back to the highway. To this day I still don't quite see how he pulled it off. We had come close enough to that ravine that I could stare down into oblivion and I was truly shaken. "God damn it Robert Lee,” I shouted, “if I'd known you were gonna pull a fool stunt like that, I'd have jumped out!" Robert Lee just looked straight ahead with a big grin. "Son," he said (he always called me Son), "That was nuthin'. Purely nuthin' "

Notwithstanding Robert Lee’s grubby demeanor and backwoods hygene, folks generally seemed pleased to see him. In the old country way, he would just drop in unannounced,--- not that there were any practical alternatives to such casual socialbility. It’s not like anyone had a telephone! The custom of neighbors and friends dropping in on neighbors and friends was as well-established as the countryside itself. Sometimes we would all just stand around and talk-- sometimes, if there were chairs or stumps, everyone would take a seat—- and sometimes, if there was an actual house, we might be invited inside.

Once we called on a woman who was probably in her late thirties living in a small house at the edge of a forest with her teenage daughter. They were both memorably beautiful, with fine-boned delicate features, long dark hair and graceful dresses that reached to their workboots. The mother was soft-spoken and gracious, and obviously took pleasure and amusement in Robert Lee’s rollicking geniality. Robert Lee, for his part, was his usual gregarious self, rambling on happily about nothing in particular. The daughter was shy and mostly silent. The mother invited us in, sat us at her kitchen table and served us bowls of miso soup, the first I had ever tasted. It was unexpectedly smoky, and delicious. Then we were out the door and down the road.

On another occasion we parked at the end of a twisting gravel road and hiked a quarter mile or so through moss-hung forest somewhere along the Hoh River until we came to a spacious shadowy grove of old alders, carpeted in oxalis and fern. A balding fellow of indeterminate age with a long beard was snoring loudly on a bed of fronds in a lean-to of cedar boughs, and when Robert Lee hollered a loud drawn-out halloooo the poor fellow lurched out sideways like a crab, tripped over a log and pitched headlong into the ferns. He wasn't accustomed to visitors and didn't seem overly-pleased to see us--- and moreover was three or four sheets to the wind.

As soon as he had recovered his composure somewhat, he made a show of hospitality by inviting us to sit on a mossy log with him and share some swigs from his bottle of MadDog 20/20, an offer that it would have been rude of us to refuse, so we didn't. It took him a few minutes and quite a few swigs to recover his voice, and as he gathered himself I looked over his lean-to. There were several layers of plastic sheeting beneath the cedar branches, and a good-sized trench all around the structure that was ditched away into the woods on the lower side to handle the run-off, but I still couldn't work out how it would offer enough protection during the winter rains.

Robert Lee asked him what the occasion was for his one-man celebration and he said he had lived there in his woodsy abode for two years now, to the very day, and had nothing to show for it but a very cunning little woodstove that he had constructed from a large coffee can using nothing but his Bowie knife. It was, in fact, a piece of admirable workmanship-- an entire little functioning woodstove no more than a foot tall, with a hinged door and a stovepipe contrived from several tin cans. I'd never seen the like, but it was the perfect size for that little lean-to. The only disadvantage that I could see was that it could burn nothing larger than a clothespin, which meant spending quite a lot of time every day just whittling wood.

I tried to console the fellow by suggesting that his stove was something he could be proud of, and he owned that he was proud of it, but that he had nothing else to show for two years of living there and wasn't proud of that at all. Which is why on this day--- the second anniversary of his time in the woods--- he was devoting his full attention to drinking rotgut Mad-dog until he passed out.

As the poor fellow was well into the maudlin stage by this time and making straight for stark insensibility, where he might unsheath that big knife of his and start mindlessly waving it about, we wished him a good day and slipped back into the woods as inconspicuously as we could.

Not long after that I ran into the poor fellow again, at one of Robert Lee's impromptu outdoor get-togethers that he hosted whenever he was feeling more than usually sociable. I asked him how he was faring and alluded to our recent visit to his campsite. He had not the least recollection that we had ever met.

Another time Robert Lee and I dropped in on a small, determined woman in her mid-twenties, living alone along a river in a shelter she had built herself. She had located it out of sight in a dense grove, but within walking distance of the county dump, which had apparently provided most of her furnishings. She was visibly proud of her little home in the woods, and had filled it with hanging baskets of ferns and flowers. Robert Lee took his time and looked around at what she had built and patiently listened as she pointed out some of the finer features, and then gave it a hearty seal of approval.

It didn’t take long to work out that most of Robert Lee’s friends were young enough to be his grandchildren, and that they were predominantly of the long-haired hippie variety—back-to-landers intent on self-sufficiency and independence. And it wasn’t hard to see why they genuinely admired Robert Lee, as I did, for his flagrant contempt for all things bureaucratic and for all the sly, ingenious strategems he had devised to circumvent them. Like most of the older, traditional residents of the \ Peninsula, Robert Lee had a sure instinct for self-sufficiency, which meant he knew how to get along without 90% of what urban folks considered absolute necessities, while possessing the full range of essential backcountry tools and skills to make it all work.

Robert Lee helped folks out as a matter of course, without making a point of it. I came to understand that the primary reason he drove all over the Peninsula wasn’t so much to stave off loneliness, as simply to keep an eye on his young friends (none of whom had lived in the country for nearly as long as he had)--- just to make sure they were getting along.

More excerpts from
Three Years on the Nowhere Road
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Off to the wilderness

A bus from the Twilight Zone

I am picked up, then dumped

On a dark, deserted highway,
the kindness of a stranger

My first ride in a logging truck

Forks, logging capitol of the world

To a camp on the Calawah

Job Interview

Up before dawn, a logger’s breakfast

My first day at the mill

A dip in the river

Working deck at the mill,
and almost losing a hand

To a new camp, further downriver

Robert Lee:
the old logger who lived in a box

The Dickey River People

When a barrel stove becomes a cannon

Alone at last

At the outfitters

On Christmas Day, I am flooded out

At the mill, I am promoted to splitter

Encounter with a sasquatch?

A scene out of Dr. Zhivago

I settle in for a solitary winter

Hanshan, the mad hermit poet

Hiking the coastline with a tomcat

A night on a seastack

I join an encampment of friends
on a tributary of the Hoh

Calling at the country estate
of Robert Lee, Esq.

Visiting around the Peninsula
in Robert Lee's 2-gear sedan

A visit to a Makah family on Neah Bay

These opening chapters represent
about 20% of the entire book,
which I hope to release
later this winter.

BJ Omanson
Nov 2021